History of Chester – ancient capital of the northwest

 

Join us at Ye Olde Guide as we explore the history of Chester

Introduction to the history of Chester 

Chester has perhaps the most diverse history of any city we’ve covered so far.  It isn’t a huge settlement now (indeed, nearby Liverpool overshadows it in many ways), but its modest scale belies its tremendous historical importance, to the north-west region and to the country.

While there was significant Iron Age activity found in the area, the first semblance of a proper town was founded by the Romans in 79 AD, in the reign of Vespasian.  Known by the Romans as ‘Deva’ from the river Dee on which it was established, Chester was initially founded as a military fort and army camp, but a major civilian town grew around it.  The central Roman fort was wooden, with an internal area of about 56 acres, but was rebuilt in stone in 102AD, with Chester’s famous large amphitheatre constructed just outside the south east corner.

Chester was abandoned by the 5th century BC, in the post-Roman Dark Ages, but rose again as a Saxon town – one of the most important in the kingdom of Mercia.  Chester was the last significant English city to fall to the Norman conquest, three years after the Battle of Hastings, and a legend states that King Harold didn’t die at Hastings but escaped to Chester, to live as a Hermit.  While this is certainly apocryphal, William the Conqueror certainly didn’t take kindly to the Chester resistance; the Domesday Book records that William wrecked the city, destroying almost half its houses.

Chester later became an important regional trading capital for the North West and North Wales and a highly significant trading port links with Ireland in the Middle Ages.  However, the silting of its river Dee meant it was eclipsed in this respect by Liverpool from the 18th century.  Tourism and the retail became the dominant trades from then on, and Chester’s prosperity grew again when the railways reached the town in 1840.

The retail and tourism sectors continue to dominate the town’s economy, thanks in no small part to the superb preservation of Victorian revival architecture in the city, which contrasts distinctively with the post-war urban style of the major cities of north-west England.    

Culture

Horse racing

Chester Racecourse held its first meeting in 1540 and is now the oldest racecourse in the world still going, and one of the most important in Britain today.  Built partly on the site of the old city port, the site is full of idiosyncrasies, such as the shortness of its track (the smallest at any major British racecourse) and the base of a Saxon rood cross.  But my favourite is the distinctive Dee Stand, built into the original city walls, which gives the illusion of people hanging off the walls to watch.  The only parallel I can think of is with Norwich City Football Club’s old ground The Nest, built into an old quarry, which was demolished close to a century ago.

The uniqueness of Chester Racecourse lies not just in these peculiarities but in its central location.  Unlike practically every other major British racecourse, it is physically in the centre, built (literally) into its urban fabric and is integral to the city’s urban form.  Even if you’re not there for a race day, you can still walk across the course for a good look (as many dog owners were doing on our visit), so take a stroll over and see it.

Chester Racecourse
View across Chester Racecourse. You can freely walk around much of the grounds on a non-race day

Scores

I’m afraid that’s pretty much it.  It’s hard not to feel like we’re missing something, but when the Victoria County History tells us that Chester’s ‘wider cultural links have always been rather meagre’, I can’t help but agree.  It doesn’t help that there has been very little 20th-century immigration into Chester.  It’s always been a bit of a monoculture (indeed, the only historical period in which it has experienced mass migration in any sense was the Roman invasion), so has lacked the diversity which stirs creativity in so many other cities.  There was some Irish migration following the Irish Potato Famine, but to nothing like the extent found in nearby Liverpool.  Some Welsh language institutions exist, but given that Chester practically straddles the Welsh border, this is hardly a reason to visit the city.

The British soap opera Hollyoaks is set in Chester (though filmed in nearby Liverpool these days to save on costs).  Plus some modern entertainers were born and educated in Chester (Britpop band Mansun were formed there and Russ Abbot went to school there), but it’s not as though this permeated their creative output in the same way that, say, Swindon’s industrial heritage did for XTC, as we discussed in the Swindon podcast.  I’m afraid, therefore, Chester scores poorly here.

Politics and War

Capital of the North-West

For a long time, Chester was the most important city in the North-West of England.  While never particularly high in population, it exerted a huge regional influence for centuries, being a centre of judicial, military and commercial life for a wide area for hundreds of years up about 1700.  Its historical alias of Westchester, used from the 14th to the 18th Century, is symbolic of the city’s regional importance.

Chester owed this early prominence to two things:

First, its favourable location on transport routes between Wales, the Irish Sea and northern and southern Britain.  Effectively, it lies at the centre of a vast British Isles crossroads and was the main staging point between the two capitals of London and Dublin, being about equidistant in travel time between the two.

Second, its remoteness from other significant settlements.  Until the rise of Shrewsbury in the Middle Ages, and then northern industrial towns in the 19th century, there was never a larger town particularly close to it.

It’s clear then that Chester’s regional outreach belied its moderate population.  So, should we expect big things in this category?  Let’s see what Chester can offer.

Roman Chester – the planned capital of Roman Britain?

We’ll talk a lot more about Roman Chester – especially its remnants and impact on the city today – in ‘Urban Landscape’.  However, we do need to mention briefly that Chester owes its very existence to Roman military need; the location was chosen for the headquarters of the XX Legion and was consequently one of the most significant military locations in Roman Britain.  The site was probably chosen, again, for its strategic location – it might have offered a good spot from which to invade Ireland, but also offered defence against the native British tribes in North Wales.

Several artefacts found in archaeological excavations of the Roman fort bear the name of the Roman governor of Britain; this, together with the uniqueness of an elliptical building found on the site of the Forum Shopping Centre, have led some historians to postulate that Chester was probably planned as the new Roman capital of Britain.  While the evidence is hardly conclusive, it does nevertheless underscore the military and political importance of Chester to Roman Britain.

Æthelflæd and Edgar – a seat of Saxon power

It really is a mark of how deep and rich Chester’s history is that we can leap straight from the Romans to the Saxons (indeed, we will return briefly to the intervening Dark Age period later on).  Chester was an important city in the Saxon kingdom of Mercia, and was hugely strengthened in the 910s by the Mercian ruler Æthelflæd, who refounded it as a fortified burgh, made it a government centre for its shire, expanded the city, founded what became its cathedral and enhanced its walls.  Æthelflæd, the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, is notable as an incredibly rare examples of a female Saxon leader, when Mercia was still partly independent from the dominant Saxon kingdom.  She was, in fact, the last significant leader of an independent Mercia, with Wessex assuming control of Mercia from her successor, not long after she died.  But, most importantly for our purposes, her influence was fundamental to Chester’s later affluence.  Æthelflæd’s lack of recognition today is almost scandalous – but this is really because our main historical source for this period of Saxon England, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was commissioned by Alfred the Great primarily as a record of his kingdom, Wessex.  And it seems almost shameful that she is so little commemorated in Chester today, but this is tempered when you realise that the whole city – the walls, the cathedral and the intangibles of its post-Saxon history – are her memorial.

Chester also played an important role in the reign of King Edgar the Peaceful (959-75), who we encountered previously in our Bath episode.  Chester had its own mint during his reign (and although there were numerous mints dotted around the country, this one was particularly prolific in the tenth century) and Edgar himself kept a royal residence in Chester, on the south bank of the River Dee.  The location of the residence is today known as Edgar’s Field Park, and is also the site of a Roman quarry used to build the Roman fortress in Chester.

Edgar is commonly recognised as the one of the first monarchs to have a real claim to rule all the English, reigning over all other regional leaders, and a famous event in Chester helped demonstrate his supremacy.  At Edgar’s council in Chester in 973, other British regional kings, including Scottish and Welsh leaders, pledged their allegiance to Edgar and rowed him across the Dee as a sign of deference, from his residence in Edgar’s Field to St John’s Church.  While there is considerable doubt over the veracity of this story, it nonetheless reveals Edgar’s supremacy and the importance of Chester, as the supposed location for such a symbolically important event.

Palatinate Chester; an independent city state?

After subduing Chester by razing half of it to the ground, William I made the city the centre of a palatinate Earldom in 1071.  A palatinate region had autonomy in governance from the rest of the country and was ruled by a nobleman; this meant, quite simply, that Chester had independence of royal government until the earldom reverted to the monarch in 1237.  Chester’s autonomy continued through the Middle Ages and later – the earldom had its own parliament and wasn’t represented in the English parliament until 1543.

Various other palatinate counties existed, but Chester’s autonomy seems to have been particularly long lasting and meaningful.  When Magna Carta was issued in 1215, Chester’s political autonomy meant it didn’t apply to the Earldom and so the Earl issued his own version.  Some of the earldom’s privileges, such as the Justice of Chester’s status as the top judicial authority in Chester, lasted until 1830.

Of course, we’re judging Chester on political influence here – and while this is all very interesting, it does perhaps sound slightly insular and internal-looking in that respect (and indeed, it seems that this autonomy had little impact on the city’s commercial development, with the city’s administration mainly operating in parallel with Westminster and not in conflict).  But, not only were these powers symbolic of the national political importance of Chester, there was an important military basis to them; one of the primary reasons for this designation was to allow strategically important areas to organise their own military defences more efficiently.  And, as we shall now see, these were certainly needed in Chester.

Battles

I said above that we’d jump back to the Dark Ages – well, an important battle probably took place in Chester around 615 (the imaginatively-titled ‘Battle of Chester’) – and again, we see an important episode in Mercian history being side-lined by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and consequently less known today than it should be.  At the Battle of Chester, the invading Anglo Saxons scored a major victory over the native Britons (the Britons being a combined Welsh force – so we can perhaps think of this as a battle of Angles vs the Welsh).  While it has been suggested that the battle might have actually taken place in North Wales and not Chester, there is some archaeological evidence supporting the case for Chester, as graves containing bodies possibly from the battle were discovered in Heronbridge, just south of Chester, in 2004.  If this is correct, it would make Chester the oldest identified battle site in Britain.

Fast forward to 1644 now, and we have the Siege of Chester during the Civil War.  Chester was initially a royalist city and hugely important by this time because it was the only significant port that remained under royal control.  During the siege by parliamentary forces, the city walls were used for gun placements (Morgan’s Mount was constructed during the siege as a gum platform), and also for observation – most famously, King Charles’s Tower, from which King Charles I supposedly watched the Battle of Rowton Heath nearby.  This battle represented the Royalist attempt to lift the siege, but the King’s army was defeated by the parliamentarian forces and he withdrew from Chester the next day.  As well as these city defences, you can see the impact today of the siege in the mortar damage to the walls at the south east of the city.  The siege had a more important impact long-term on the city, in snuffing out the rapid population growth it had been experiencing up till then.

As we mentioned above, Chester was on an important strategic location within the British Isles, at the crossroads between the four nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  This made it an important staging point for Edward I’s Welsh campaigns, with conflicts taking place with Owen Glendower’s forces near the city, around the Dee.

Scores

It’s hard not to think we’ve done Chester down in this category.  It really was one of the most important cities in the country for a long time, and played a key role in numerous domestic conflicts – for example, it was a real centre of power for Richard II during his conflict with Henry IV, as his own personal earldom, and yet we’ve barely even mentioned this.  We’ve picked up on some of the highlights and our personal favourite points here to give a flavour of its importance across different periods of time, but we really could have picked an entirely different sample and had equal impact.

If there’s one negative point to raise, it’s that Chester’s importance definitely faded after the late 18th century, as political importance turned to rising centres of heavy industry – but really, this hardly detracts from the richness of what came before, which is given its due commemoration today the city’s imposing walls and castle, along with the Dewa Roman Experience and the city’s many other museums.

Science and industry

Chester port

Chester had a hugely important port in the Middle Ages; built on the site of a Roman harbour, this was arguably the most important seaport in northern England for many centuries.  Trade with Ireland was the main source of wealth for the city’s merchants from the late Middle Ages to Tudor times, but Chester was a truly international trading city, with archaeological evidence proving trading links stretching as far as China.  As a port city, Chester would also have had a far-reaching draw on agricultural and other commercial produced from North Wales and much of north-west England, which helped make it a true regional capital; indeed, the historian Peter Borsay labels it a top-ranking provincial town by Stuart times – a ‘regional capital’ in his hierarchy – despite its population being lower than many other, less significant provincial towns (and despite Bristol surpassing it as the most important west coast port in the late Middle Ages).

Eventually, Chester was supplanted by Liverpool in the late 18th century as the most important trading port in its region.  This resulted partly from the silting of the River Dee, which prevented large ships from reaching the city (it’s also noticeable when scanning old maps how much the course of the river has changed – the Water Tower on the city’s walls actually used to sit in the river before its course changed).  From this point, Chester’s industrial prowess was quickly overtaken by not just Liverpool but also smaller industrial towns like Wrexham and Birkenhead, which had more convenient access to the coalfields of North Wales and, in some cases, better transport links.

Other industries

While some heavy manufacturing industries existed in Chester in the early 19th century (mostly brought in by the Shropshire Union Canal), these had mostly disappeared after the Industrial Revolution and all but vanished by the 1840s, when the railways started to connect the country.   Some remnants of this industry remain today around the canal, such as Telford’s Warehouse, built in 1790 by Thomas Telford partly over the canal so that boats could be unloaded or unloaded inside the building.  The warehouse was converted into a pub in the 1980s (and is still an excellent place to get a drink).

Another remnant of early industry in Chester is the Chester Shot Tower – the only remaining feature of Chester’s old leadworks.  It’s the oldest shot tower in the UK (only three still exist here) and possibly even the world.  Lead shot was made in the tower dropping molten lead through a sieve from the top and letting surface tension form a perfect sphere during the drop.  The tower is currently being reconditioned and incorporated into a new housing development.

A small brewing industry emerged after 1800, as was fairly normal in towns of Chester’s size, but this was quite a small-scale trade which grew only to serve insular demand within the city itself (unlike the brewing trade we saw in our Reading episode, which served a much wider demand base).

Chester Shot Tower
Chester Shot Tower environs

Retail and tourism

Despite this lack of industry, Chester found itself a niche with the tourist industry from the end of the 18th century.  Similar to Bath and other resort towns at this time, Chester’s retail facilities and rich architectural diversity enabled it to become a centre of leisure rather than commerce, with the new railway networks initiating a transition in clientele from Georgian gentry to mass, working class travel.  The Victoria County History for Chester notes the attraction of Chester to visitors far and wide at this time, stating that there were already plenty of American tourists heading there in the late 19th century.

Chester’s attraction to tourists continued into the 20th century; in particular, after nearby Liverpool took a battering during the Blitz, Chester (which escaped relatively unscathed) offered its inhabitants a pleasant retail excursion.  The city has always contained more shops than its modest population needs, and in fact contains the oldest existing shop front in England – the Three Old Arches.

Diana Beck – the first female neurosurgeon

On Ye Olde Guide, we try to avoid simply listing people who were born in a particular town – we’re more interested in notable people whose paths in life were shaped by their life or experiences in a particular place and, of course, education is one of the key things we look for here.  While Chester has a university, it only offered teacher training courses until the 1970s (and only achieved full university status in 2005) so its list of famous alumni is understandably short.  Nonetheless, some remarkable individuals were educated in the city, and we’re going to pick up on a couple briefly here.

First; Diana Beck.  Beck was born near Chester and went to the Queen’s School there from 1912-19.  From there, she moved to the London School of Medicine for Women, studying medicine and become the world’s first known female neurosurgeon, finding public fame when she operated on A.A. Milne, author of the Winnie-the-Pooh books.

Second; Thomas Brassey, the great civil engineer.  Born in rural Cheshire, Brassey, was educated at The King’s School in Chester from the age of 12 to 16.  Brassey’s achievements were so remarkable that we can’t hope to list them all here, but as highlights; by 1847, the peak of Railway Mania, Brassey had constructed one third of Britain’s railway network as it existed at the time.  By his death, he was responsible for 5% of all the railway mileage worldwide.  He built sewers under London which are still in use today and the Royal Victoria Docks in London, among many other projects.  Today, he is commemorated in busts in Chester’s Grosvenor Museum and Cathedral, information boards in key locations (including outside Chester Station) and three street names in the city.

Scores

Chester’s eclipse by Liverpool was quite unfortunately timed from for this category – it meant that the port never had the opportunity to act as a major centre for trade or manufacturing after the Industrial Revolution.  This meant that any growth in industry Chester mainly served an insular demand, for a population which was growing but only through natural growth, with overall little in-migration (unusually for an urban area at this time, Chester experienced more out-migration than in-migration between 1801 and 1841).

The tourism and retail sectors are important (and it’s great that we still have some unique heritage representing this today) though, as the historian E.A. Wrigley wrote, this transition to a service economy effectively precipitated the city’s decline from national fame and regional importance to local significance only.  Nonetheless, Chester’s transition to a retail and leisure economy took a distinctive path – as the Victoria County History puts it, Chester could conceivably be described as a railway town but, uniquely, one in which the railways diversified the city rather than creating it.

Urban landscape

In previous episodes, we’ve nit-picked a tad over the lack of architectural variety that we’ve seen – even in the most wonderfully preserved period settlements like Bath, the uniformity has given us an excuse to moderate our scores.  But will a city with as rich and varied a past as Chester give us any such grounds to quibble?

Let’s have a look.

Roman Chester

In any other city, the presence of just one Roman relic would probably have us in raptures – even a famously Roman city like Bath, as we discovered, retains surprisingly little tangible evidence of its Roman provenance.  Well, in Chester, we really are spoilt.

The first thing to say is that, in Romano-British terms, Chester is old.  Very old.  The military fort which founded the city was built in the 1st century AD, initially as a headquarters for Roman legion, and the military amphitheatre constructed just outside its south-east corner was constructed in the same century.  The amphitheatre held 8,000 spectators and is the largest ever uncovered in Britain, incorporating an extensive network of dungeons, stables and food stalls.  Used initially for animal blood sports (such as cock fighting and bull baiting) and combat sports like gladiator fights, the buildings were later demolished with the recessed arena area used for public executions.  However, a combination of rubble and dumped rubbish eventually levelled the area and the amphitheatre lay untouched until it was rediscovered during conservation work in 1929.  Only the southern half has been excavated (thanks in no small part to some prats at the council deciding to build a new court and car park over part of the northern half twenty years ago).  We can at least be thankful that the path of Chester’s inner ring road, constructed in the 1960s, dodges the amphitheatre.  This was a deliberate choice, as evidenced by the noticeable sharp kink in the road as it skirts the amphitheatre’s perimeter.

Another particularly noteworthy Roman artefact is Minerva’s shrine in Edgar’s field.  Dating from the 2nd century AD, and dedicated to the Roman goddess of wisdom, the shrine was carved into a sandstone quarry and is the only Roman shrine in Britain still in its original location.  The astonishing thing is just how close you can get to this today, considering how exceptional and valuable it is.  No barriers or admission fees here.  A brief mention also goes to the original Roman hypocaust (a form of underfloor central heating) under 39 Bridge Street.

Now for the moaning.  As much great stuff survives, there could have been so much more – and as so often on Ye Olde Guide, we primarily have reckless 1960s redevelopment to blame for this.  Huge amounts of Roman artefacts were destroyed during the construction of Chester’s city centre in the 1960s.  Workmen’s accounts give us horror stories of sections of Roman baths (just as good as any ruins found in other cities) being wrecked and exquisite mosaics being thrown away.  And then we come to the Roman Garden.  Established in 1949, this really is a higgledy-piggledy mess of Roman artefacts found around the city.  It’s a pleasant enough area but, from a heritage perspective, nothing more than a random hodgepodge that screams inauthenticity.  It reminds me horribly of the restored medieval streets we encountered in our Coventry episode.

But, as much as been lost in Chester, we shouldn’t let that detract from the fantastic artefacts that remain.  And even beyond these tangible archaeological remnants, the legacy of Roman Chester is still with us in the layout of the central street plan and the foundation of the city walls.  In this sense, Chester really is one of the most authentic Romano-British towns we have.

City walls – the most complete in Britain

While fragments of city walls remain in a few dozen English cities, there are only a handful which survive largely intact.  And Chester’s, forming a complete two-mile complete circuit around the city centre, have a convincing claim to be the best, and best-preserved, in the whole of Britain.  

Constructed originally by early Roman settlers in the first century AD (with Roman foundations sitting beneath some of the towers today), the walls were later refortified by the Saxons and Normans but suffered significant damage in the Civil War.  However, while other resort towns like Bath jettisoned their crumbling walls in the Georgian great rebuilding, in Chester they were repaired extensively in the 18th century, with the existing walkway added to the top.

The bridges, gates and towers that sit on the walls are a real mix of styles and eras – some are Georgian restorations, while others are medieval.  And they include the Eastgate Clock – a late-Victorian turret clock atop a Georgian gate, on the site of the original entrance to the Roman fortress.  And, reputedly, the second-most photographed clock in Britain after Big Ben (though how anyone could actually know this is a mystery to me – is someone standing there counting the photographers?).  Other highlights include the Northgate, built in 1810 to replace a medieval gate which stood on one of the original entrances to the Roman city, and the King Charles’s Tower, from which King Charles II supposedly watched his army defeated in battle at nearby Rowton Heath (though he may actually have stood on top of the cathedral tower, which would have offered him a much clearer view).  The latter tower is also known as the Phoenix Tower, after the emblem of the Painter’s Company which used to meet here, and a 17th-century stone phoenix can still be seen above its door.

Rows and revivalism

Chester may feel like an authentically medieval city, but there is in fact an incredible diversity of Victorian revivalist architecture here.  Ranging from the neoclassical additions and restorations to Chester Castle, to the neo-gothic townhall in the local red sandstone, Chester’s present townscape was shaped as much by 19th century idealism as medieval necessity.

The most famous examples of Victorian revivalism in Chester are the Rows – the black and white, first-floor buildings that run along elevated walkways above four streets converging on Chester Cross (I admit, it’s hard to do them justice with a verbal description – so take a look at some pictures).  These consist of open arcades of wood-framed shops built on top of medieval undercroft cellars – an arrangement dating from the Middle Ages which is almost unique in the whole world (as far as I can tell, only Thun in Switzerland has something similar, but on a smaller scale).  While the buildings may appear antiquated, they are almost all Victorian additions, owing their construction to increased 19th century prosperity.  Their two-tone faux-wattle and daub facades are part of what the architectural critic Nicklaus Pevsner termed the ‘black and white revival movement’ (honestly, couldn’t he have come up with a more imaginative label than that?).  Nonetheless, the original street arrangements and the cellars underneath (presently used for a variety of purposes including pubs and restaurants) are most definitely medieval, and the feeling of walking along an centuries-old, two storey shopping lane is very real indeed.

The reason for the Rows’ construction is long lost.  One theory is that they were built because the hard bedrock initially made it difficult for building owners to construct extra floors below their buildings – and so they built upwards instead of downwards.  However, I much prefer (if only because it’s more interesting) the suggestion that they were originally built on top of piles of Roman ruins that lined the streets – and so, again, the only choice was to build upwards.  We’ll probably never know for sure, but it’s fun to speculate.

Chester Castle

For centuries, Chester’s military defences and administrative functions were based around its castle.  The original wooden Chester Castle was built in the 11th century by the second of Earl of Chester, and was replaced first with a stone tower in the 12th century and then with further fortifications in 1245, but today it’s a beautiful combination of restored medieval ruin and Georgian neoclassical revivalism, having been extensively restored and augmented in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Castle has of course seen much military use over the years, holding a gun emplacement during the 1745 Jacobite Rising and being used as a military base and the depot of the Cheshire Regiment as recently as 1939 (the history of which is told in a museum in the castle complex).  The building was attacked during the 1867 Fenian Rising, in an unsuccessful attempt to steal armaments and transport these to Dublin in a hijacked train.  But the Castle has seen numerous other uses – as a royal residence, a mint, a court, a tax office and a prison, where famous captives included Richard II and Andrew Murray (no, not that one – the joint commander of the Scottish forces at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, who was rather cruelly airbrushed out of events in Braveheart).

Extensive additions were made to the castle complex in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with the medieval fortress supplemented by a multitude of Greek Revival buildings, including the Propylaea which now acts as the gateway to the castle complex.

In all honesty, Chester Castle isn’t quite the tourist attraction it could be – the military museum is good, but there are no really top rate attractions inside to give you a day out.  But really, its merits lie in its aesthetics – the towering sandstone walls and grand Norman bailey tower blend seamlessly with Chester’s magnificent medieval walls and form a wonderful part of a city that, in all honesty, doesn’t need another museum.

Chester Castle – multiple phases of construction spanning centuries are visible

Two cathedrals

It’s testament to Chester’s strength in this category that we barely have time to mention its two cathedrals.  The first, St John’s Church, was founded in the 7th century and formed the destination of King Edgar’s legendary journey across the Dee from his palace on the other bank (mentioned above).  It stood as Chester’s cathedral until 1082, when the see of Mercia was transferred to Coventry.  The  St John’s Church sits on the north bank of the Dee, wedged between the Roman amphitheatre and the ruins of the 11th century cathedral, which contain this rather grisly medieval remnant in the walls.

The present Chester Cathedral (previously an Abbey) was made the city’s cathedral in 1541, after the dissolution of the monasteries.  It contains an amazing array of medieval English architectural styles (though much of what you can see today dates to extensive later restoration works) and, for the child in you, a 300,000-piece work in progress Lego replica of itself.

Scores

In our episode on Bath, we gushed over the city’s incredible architectural legacy, while stopping short of giving top marks simply on account of the city’s lack of diversity from its overriding Georgian style.  Well, in Chester, we certainly got the variety we wanted.  The city took a completely different route in its Georgian and Victorian rebuilding projects, embracing some neoclassical fashions (as in the restoration of the castle) but also its medieval heritage, through the preservation of its walls, its rows and through the black and white revival architecture which so characterises the city today.  Which all means that the city today contains 58 separate grade 1 listed buildings (including 27% of England’s grade 1 listed pubs), with every era from Norman to Victorian (plus Roman) represented.  True, there have been some major mistakes in modern-day urban planning – some of the retail and transport developments ringing the city centre are as hideous as you’ll find in any other late-twentieth century English city centre.  But the good massively outweighs the bad, with the city’s good fortune in escaping major damage in World War II meaning so much of great heritage survives today.  While Chester had its share of awful post-war development and baffling planning decisions, this wasn’t enough to destroy the city’s unique charm.

Reality vs expectations

I’m going to bring a bit of subjectivity into this.  I visited Chester fleetingly as a younger man and wasn’t all that impressed with it; while wandering briskly around the city centre, I somehow managed to miss the castle, the Rows, the Roman remains – practically everything that makes the city great.  So, in my naivety, I was slightly expecting Chester’s history to belie its status as a top visitor destination.

Well, I was wrong – and it gives me great pleasure to admit so.  Chester has a far richer political and military history than any town we’ve covered so far, and a spectacularly varied urban heritage which reflects every era of its history.  It has several excellent museums and genuinely unique urban architecture – in all of these aspects, Chester far exceeded my expectations.

There are some gripes.  Chester’s industrial history, while hardly non-existent, is pretty thin compared with the city’s pre-industrial significance.  And its cultural history is a huge let down, notwithstanding how motivated I now am to visit the spectacular racecourse again.  But, as we’ve said constantly on this podcast, it’s better to excel in one or two categories than achieve a par score in all of them.  And Chester certainly does that.

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3 thoughts on “History of Chester – ancient capital of the northwest

  1. excellent podcast I live in Chester. Think the Earls of Chester were the heirs to throne rather than monarchs eg Prince Charles now Prince William.

  2. I suppose I would personally regard Chester’s monoculture a good thing; not every city needs to be a patchwork quilt of different peoples. Sometimes it’s nice to have one that just exists as it always did.

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